Enemy of the State

How Glenn Greenwald is taking on the world, and why he'll never stop.



Greenwald’s early experimental phase on the Internet — which overlapped with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping scandals — stoked much of his obsession with surveillance and privacy, first for sport on his own blog, then as a full-time columnist for Salon, followed by a year long stint at The Guardian. Greenwald quit the London-based outlet two weeks after our visit to join a new media venture backed by billionaire and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, which Greenwald describes as a “once in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity.” If Greenwald’s notoriety as a civil liberties purist emerged during the Bush years, he really stuck out as one of the few voices on the liberal side of the spectrum that did not go easy on Barack Obama’s own transgressions. His work in breaking the surveillance program documents gathered by Snowden has made him a household name.

Greenwald has been very careful about the way he talks about his relationship with Snowden, not just for security reasons but because Snowden told Greenwald before they met in Hong Kong that he wanted to be out of the public eye in order for people to focus on the substance of the NSA leaks. Greenwald publicly cheered Snowden’s bravery and integrity for coming forward so others would not be blamed or interrogated, but today, Greenwald has more chest-thumping swagger about Snowden; he is practically pink with pride.

“Here’s the real reason Snowden came forward,” Greenwald says, a charge of adrenaline bursting through him as he throws his arms out. “He wanted to undermine the culture of fear by saying ‘Yeah, motherfuckers, not only did I spoil your secrets but here’s who I am! I look like every Midwestern son, you can’t marginalize me because I’m like you; this is my beautiful girlfriend and my stable career! I’m not some Ted Kaczynski maladjusted maniac living in the forest!’ It was a deliberately and provocatively bold thing to do.”

Greenwald also admires Snowden for not uploading the tens of thousands of classified documents to which he had access to the Internet, WikiLeaks style, forcing the public to sort through countless memoranda and policy papers without quite knowing what they’re looking at (though Greenwald is a staunch defender of Julian Assange’s work and actively fundraises for WikiLeaks). Instead, Snowden has worked with Greenwald to select the most essential documents and underscore their impact.

Unlike Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks who now lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Greenwald praises Snowden for not going to the New York Times or the Washington Post to break the NSA stories. He often chides his friend for his reliance on mainstream media to broadcast WikiLeaks stories. “I’m like, ‘Hey, asshole! Why do you keep handing documents to the New York Times when you could give them to an independent journalist and elevate independent media?’” Greenwald believes Snowden’s decision to give him the documents has prompted some soul-searching in places like the New York Times. Snowden echoes this belief as well, as he wrote in his email to me:

“Glenn’s work is a foreshadowing of the death of ‘access journalism.’ What we’re seeing with the NSA reporting is that prioritizing the interests of officials over the public, the news audience, is not a winning strategy. Journalists and institutions that hold power to account will attract sources who can provide the facts you aren’t going to get in a briefing room. The access game is a mirage; the officials alienated by hard questions have no choice but to take your calls when confronted with the truth.”